Lawmakers pledge to work with FAA after tour in Aurora
Lawmakers critical of FAA Administrator Michael Huerta after sabotage at the Chicago Center air traffic control center in Aurora caused an aviation meltdown left a meeting Friday pledging to get the agency more funding for a better backup system.
"My top priority will be to make sure there's a hot/warm backup plan, just like the Pentagon has," U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said, referring to an alternative site where Chicago Center controllers could work from. "O'Hare is the heartbeat of the U.S. economy; it can never stop."
"When you see it, it's just stunning," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said, referring to damage officials say was caused by fires set Sept. 26 by a suicidal FAA contractor. "The fire and soot and smoke created such havoc with technical, sensitive equipment. It's an incredible act of sabotage."
Asked about the safety of flights when the system failed, Huerta said, "The highest priority is to ensure the safety of every plane that is in the air. The pilots know what to do in a situation like that ... they maintain their headings, and we worked as quickly as we can to establish communications (with other ATC centers). There never was a danger of a catastrophic crash, because everyone worked together to ensure the safety of the situation."
But as to a quick return to the status quo, "it was never expected that airlines would run 100 percent of their operations with a catastrophic event," Huerta said.
Legislators who toured the Aurora site Friday said it was important to give the FAA the resources to deliver NextGen, a satellite-based system to guide planes that's being gradually introduced. That program, however, is a few years off.
"The capital budget of the FAA is underfunded by roughly 30 percent," Congressman Bill Foster of Naperville said.
The agency is on track to get Chicago Center back in business by Oct. 13, and Durbin said it's possible the facility could reopen sooner.
Naperville resident Brian Howard, 36, is charged with destruction of an aircraft facility. Howard was an eight-year employee of contractor Harris Corp., which supplies technology to the FAA. Officials say he attempted suicide in the basement of the Chicago Center building in Aurora after setting fires and cutting radar and communications feeds.
According to the FBI, Howard was dragging a suitcase when he used an ID card to enter Chicago Center at 5:06 a.m. A 911 call was made at 5:42 a.m., meaning he had about 40 minutes of uninterrupted time.
Officials said they couldn't comment about how employees are screened, but Huerta is working on a review of what went wrong, including security.
After computer screens went black at Chicago Center, some controllers had a little time to shift flights over to other air traffic centers -- but that didn't occur in every case.
More than 1,600 flights have been canceled at O'Hare since the crime occurred.
On Friday, more than 230 flights were canceled at O'Hare International Airport and a few at Midway. Delays were minimal at O'Hare but averaging 30 minutes at Midway.